Looking to Upgrade? Should you go Full Frame for your next D-SLR?


With the advent of full frame D-SLRs a few years ago many pros and amateurs alike were excited to be able to go back to the familiar "35mm" perspective and focal lengths on their lenses. Long limited by technology to APS-C size (about 2/3 the size of 35mm) sensors digital was finally able to go toe to toe with film. But the initial cameras cost nearly $8,000, putting them out of the range of most photographers. But the newest crop of full frame models have brought the costs down to a fraction of that. So should you go back to full frame with your next camera purchase? We'll take a look at some of the models and pros and cons...

Bigger Pixels Can Make Better Photos
The math of full frame is confusing but actually fairly simple. If you put a fixed number of pixels into a sensor, full frame gives you more space for each pixel (technically called a photosite or well). That means it can capture more light (in the form of photons) and do a better job of telling light from the image apart from the electrical noise that runs around in every camera. The result is much better low light performance in the form of better color and lower noise at high ISOs.
As one example, the Nikon D700 (which uses the same full frame sensor as the more expensive D3) can capture images easily at 1-2 stops higher ISO  than its sibling the Nikon D300S which uses the smaller "1.5" multiplier DX sensor (also known as APS-C). Practically speaking that means you can use up to four times the shutter speed or get two more stops of depth of field with the full frame version.
For Canon shooters the similar tradeoff is between the prosumer small sensor Canon 7D and the full frame Canon 5D Mark II. This image of a leopard taken after sunset on one of my African Photo Safaris wouldn't have been possible without the full frame sensor in the D3 I was using: 
 Female Leopard Examining our Safari Truck
Obviously full frame can be crucial when photographing indoor sports, low light wildlife action often found pre-dawn and post-sunset, and scenics and interiors without a tripod, for example. It is amazingly freeing to know that if needed you can crank your camera ISO up to 3200 or even higher if needed. Of course it's always better to keep your ISO as low as you can for maximum image quality. The Nikon D3S pushes the envelope even further, with another stop of added low light performance over the Nikon D3.
The True Cost of Full Frame
For both Canon and Nikon shooters the first tradeoff for going full frame is the cost of the camera body. The full frame prosumer models with very similar features to their small sensor cousins will cost you nearly $1,000 more. If you've got a tight budget then you're better off sticking with the smaller sensor models. Later we'll talk about the other additional costs you'll incur with full frame.
Of course this means that if you want any type of entry level or "budget" camera you'll be limited to smaller sensor models like the exciting new Nikon D3100 or the Canon 50D. At least that simplfies your choices!
In the Pro line the costs run even higher, with the full frame Nikon D3X  costing $7,400 and the Canon 1DS Mark III  around $6,200 while the smaller sensor faster versions--the Nikon D3S  runs $5200 and the Canon 1D Mark IV is just under $5,000.
The real cost of switching to full frame isn't only in the camera body, but in lenses. Small form factor lenses can be light, small and highly functional. Because they only need to resolve the image on a small sensor they are easier to design and build. The result is easy on your wallet and your back.
As an example, the ultra-popular Nikon 18-200mm DX f/3.5-f/5.6G is a nearly pro quality "one size fits all" lens for DX format Nikons selling for about $750. The minute you shift to full frame you'll need to carry two lenses to replace it. For example the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-f/5.6G and the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-f/5.6--totalling nearly $1200 and of course requiring changing lenses and a larger camera bag.
Nikon is attempting to address this issue with the newly announced Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 super-zoom with VR & AF-S which you can pre-order for $1049. This lens is guaranteed to be an exciting alternative for those of us with at least one full frame camera who really miss the versatility of the 18-200.
Canon shooters already have a full-frame super-zoom option, but it is quite a monster as the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 USM lens sells for $2,420 and weighs a hefty 3.7 pounds. The Nikon version will weigh under 2 pounds but of course it is too early to judge its performance and image quality.
Telephoto lenses can push the discrepency even further. Moving from a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II lens to a 400mm f/2.8 lens to keep the same effective focal length for example will cost you a cool $3,000 additional and a few extra pounds of weight. This Puffin image captured on our Alaska Photo Safari this year was a cinch with a Nikon 200-400mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter on my Nikon D300S, but would have required much more lens if I'd been using my D700.
New Sensors, New Lenses
In addition to needing "full frame" friendly lenses its important to realize that many older lens designs that worked just fine with film will vignette (have darker corners) when used with full frame digital cameras. This is because the sensor is more sensitive to the angle of light than film was. Nikon, for example, has updated its legendary 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR lens partially to address this issue for their pro users.
Opinions vary on how severe the vignetting is, and it is not too difficult to correct in Photoshop in any case, but if you're in doubt make sure and leave some of your budget for upgrading your existing lenses if you make the jump to full frame.
The Brighter Side of Full Frame
Of course you get some benefit from the lower noise of the full frame sensor so rather than thinking you need to upgrade all your telephoto lenses when you go full frame its reasonable to think of the switch as the same as removing a 1.4x Teleconverter. So the fix is simple--add a teleconverter to your telephoto lenses. I detailed this tradeoff in a blog post explaining the situation when I first started shooting with both full frame and small sensor cameras.
And then there is wide-angle shooting. With the ubiquitous 18-200 you'll only get to an effective focal length of 27mm on the wide end. Even with the nearly essential Nikon 12-24mm DX zoom the widest you can go is an effective 18mm. Shots like this one of Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone that I captured at 12mm with the lovely Sigma 12-24mm zoom (whch I compared with the Nikon 14-24mm last month in my blog on cardinalphoto.com) just aren't possible:
Whether it is wide-angle images like this one or low light action images like the monk below from my Southeast Asian Photo Safari full frame clearly has large advantages. Whether they are worth the extra effort and cost is a decision you'll need to make for yourself. Armed with the information in this post hopefully you can at least make your next D-SLR buying decision with your eyes open!
Monk seeking Alms pre-dawn
Perhaps you'll make the same decision I have and start using both formats depending on the project and the subject.
Learning More
If you're enjoying our posts here on B&H Insights then we welcome you to visit our information website nikondigital.org (also conveniently accessible as canondigital.org, since we cover not just Nikon but also Sigma and Sony and compatible photographic equipment) and our photo and safari website (we offer educational and enjoyable photo safaris to Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Texas and Alaska), cardinalphoto.com. You can also subscribe directly to our monthly DigitalPro Shooter to keep up with our latest news and analysis.

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It's funny you posted this today because I'm in the middle of a fun purchase, but I'm torn between the Canon 5D Mark II (full frame) and the Canon 7D. Fortunately, I have a nice budget and can choose which one I want to get. I want a total solution for photo and video. I know for photo, full frame is the way to go, especially in low light, but then all the wedding video guys out there like the 7D because of its size and the crop factor so they can get in tight. i can't figure out what to do, so I'm going to B&H to actually touch and feel these cameras and talk to some people who know more than me.

Joe--Yes, there's no perfect answer. That's one of the greatest things about B&H. In an era of online megastores (including B&H of course) they also still have such an awesome physical store where you really can work hands on with just about any piece of gear on the planet. Let us know what you decide!--David

Magrino, i bought both 5d mark ii and canon t2i (not the 7d yet). so for $900 more just get the t2i.

I too am excited about the 28-300 for what I do (ski pics) it will be killer.

I do shoot alot of full frame for interior stuff with the 14-24 which along with the 24-70 Nikon introduced at the same time are 2 of the best pieces of glass I've used since the 135mm Q series. 

That said being a sport guy I shoot 90% cropped and with the D3 and the results are money (literarly) but it is great to have the wide angle option of full frame. The next thing I want is video good enough to frame grab images the quality the camera produces, the D3s just doesn't quite cut it.


 APS-C is actually less than 50% the size of 35mm film (864 square mm vs. 370 sq. mm.), not 2/3rd's as indicated.  Due to lens geometry, the crop factor is 1.5 times.  You can run a simple web search and see this--it's just that the camera companies want to obfuscate this fact.

Older lenses (both AF and manual focus Nikons anyway) work great on FX full frame digitals, like the D700.  It's not like Nikon discontinued all of their AF-D lenses (some of which date back to the1980's or before like the 50mm) as soon as the D3 came out.  And older Nikon AF lenses, especially used, will be MUCH cheaper to buy than the newest Nikon offerings with all their new tech-wiz-bang. And if you are upgrading from DX, older lenses are often cheaper than their DX cousins as well.  Yes, new Nikon glass is nice, but older lenses work fine and are a great alternative.

 @new--To make sure we are on the same page, yes there is 1/2 the _area_ on an APS-C sensor because each side is 2/3 as long--thus the 1.5 "crop factor" (the reciprocal of 2/3 is 3/2 or 1.5)

I can't agree with your blanket statement that older Nikon glass works "great" on FX cameras. Many of those lenses have substantial light fall off when used with FX (for example my beloved 70-200 AF-S--which is one big reason Nikon has come up with a newer and unfortunately more expensive version). That fall off may not bother you, but it does bother many photographers and therefore can not be ignored.

In the discussion of full frame versus APS-C sensors, nothing is stated regarding sharpness and clarity between the two. Will I get better quality prints with a full frame Nikon D700 versus a D80 assuming normal lighting conditions?

You will get better dynamic range with a D700 over a D90 but that is more to improvements in sensor design than sensor size. If you compare a D300s to a D700 you will only notice a diference over 1000 ISO.

There is a lot of hype over the high ISO of the D300s and D300. Resolution and noise is low, but colour goes flat it high ISOs. I use a Fuji S5 (DX) as well as Nikon,  this has 6mp + 6m smaller cellls for highlights. I recon the Fuji has better DR amd colours than the D700 at 1600ISO.

I could not see limiting myself to either format exclusively.  For birds, I enjoy the additional reach of the DX system but there is no substitute for the FX system for scenics, etc so I have both - D300 and D3S.

Why do you refer to the D3s as a "smaller sensor?" It's full-frame.  

@Roger--My bad. I was looking for a way to show the extra cost of the larger size sensor and of course the difference between the D3X and D3S is resolution, not size as you correctly point out. I guess for Nikon the closest apples to apples full frame vs. DX is the pricing of the D700 & D300S at about $1K difference. The conclusion is the same but I need to fix the models I use to illustrate it.

I found this article helpful. I am currently shooting with a Canon 7d and considering adding at least the 6d with the 24-105 lens, with the bigger more expensive 5d mkiii still in the back of my mind.

B&H is where I buy my gear, you folks are the best, Thank you

Just bought the 5D III reading every thing to learn more about this camera


My latest B&H crush is for Jeff Cable. But like most real Pro's they can afford full-frame.

What's the best non full frame Canon and Nikon cameas, out there. Have a D60 and D3200. Not sure if I should upgrade, for obvious brightness/quality....

Currently, I would state the Nikon D7100 is currently the best APS-C sensor camera in regards to image quality, color density, and dynamic range.  The D3300 is a newer camera and has slightly better low-light performance, but the D7100 still has the best overall performance when comparing APS-C Nikon cameras.  Both cameras would be a huge increase to the Nikon D60 due to the age of the camera and the upgrades to technology since the camera was released.  The D3200 is still relatively new, but as it is the basic entry level camera, the Nikon D7100 still offers better performance, and would have extra benefits (such as focus speed, focus points, burst speed, ability to focus with ALL Nikon AF lenses, etc.).  With Canon, while not the top APS-C camera in the lineup, the Canon EOS 70D would be the better-performing camera due to its age and better processor in the camera.  While the Canon 60D, 70D, and 7D are more even in image performance, the 70D is the best of the three in regards to low-light performance.

I'm banging my head against the wall with this cunundrem at the moment.

I'm an amature hobiest at best and have no desire to sell what I do or snap some poor fellows wedding. But I love my photography and need a new camera desperately.

My stuff is sunrises and sunsets and I'm starting to play with the stars. A lot of jam sessions and rock concerts. Motorbikes both and track and dirt, and surfing. I do have lots of whales and birdlife where  I live too which I try to shoot as well. And will also want to do water work with it..... It needs to be happy with the elements!

After a huge amount of angst I have it down to two cameras. Both will come in at the exact same price....

A brand new D7100 with 18-55  70-300 G series lens kit....

A two year old D700 & 50mm 1.8 with 44,000 actuations but in 98% condition. The only mark is underneath from the Tripod.

I have no need for vid but sound recording would be an added bonus with a decent mike attached...(I'm Assssuming) Otherwise a lot of the bells and whistles will remain silent....

My only friends with FF cameras are very experienced and established photographers. And they're split almost down the line, but all agree that the D700 would suit my style better. But not budget! It's fun for me not work and I have ither hobbies that bleed me now.

My friends without FF's say who would spend that much on a camera if it didn't return the coin?


The D700 is a fine camera, but unless there was some specific lens that I wanted to use that demanded a full-frame camera, I’d opt for the D7100 with my choice lenses over the D700 at this point.  The D7100 has a higher pixel *****, faster and more modern processor, and faster burst rate for taking continuous still images.  Additionally with the 1.5x magnification, you get better use of your telephoto lenses for your whale watching and birding and surf photos – a reason not to go with a full-frame.  Plus you get the added feature of being able to record HD 1080p video.  As far as it being a tool goes, in my opinion it’s the better tool for the tasks you’ve mentioned. 

Great read


Your catalogue is great, love your work. I'm a postie down here in Aus and you might want to know that yours is the only photography Mag/catalogue that I deliver. Or have delivered in a decade on my run.

Your it :-) and just about all the snappers on my run have it delivered


I have a 11 or 12 year old D100 that I bought new. I am thinking of upgrading to full frame. In low light there is noise that I think would be better with the new technology. However do I have to go to full frame for an improvement? Something tells me that the latest cropped frame cameras with 12 year newer technology will give me perhaps significant different pictures for less money?

What is the answer?

There have been alot of advancements in the digital technology used in cameras since the D100 was contemporary.  The most basic/entry level DSLR's will be able to run circles around the D100 in terms of overall performance and image quality.  Theres definitely no need to go to a full-frame model just to get better quality than what you are accustomed to. Following are two links to recommended models for you to consider:



Im interested in receiving the monthly DigitalPro Shooter.

i have a new d7100 and an old d90. Should I retire the d90 and add a full frame d750 with a 24 to 124 lens or spend the money on better lens on my other two cameras. I have the money now to upgrade. I have a 80mm lens 18-105 70-300

I am almost ready to retire in a couple of years an hope to do photography as a part time job.Thank you.

I am always one to recommend upgrading your lenses before the body.  You've got two good DSLRs and a handful of decent lenses, but switching to the D750 will not necessarily cause better image quality.  I typically advise upgrading the camera when the features/ability of the current camera are not sufficient for your particular needs.  The lenses are the most important part of the photographic process, they determine the final image quality as well as the composition for your image.  Getting a new lens of a different type or getting a better version of one you may currently use will definitely change your outlook on your images as well as your camera. 

  • Info was very helpful since I want to upgrade my nikon non-vr,non ed 70-300 lens to a better DX. Can't afford a full frame camera or the 2.8 lens

Camera and lens info required

For advisement on the best camera and lens for your needs, please email us directly at photo@bhphoto.com and we will be happy to assist you.

Been researching cameras and ready to purchase!! Love taking photos, starting classes as soon as I buy one.

i am having the D5100 18-55 & 35mm f/1.8. Am planing to get a upgrade, but am confused as to what should i go for.

Whether i should buy a Full Frame or Crop Sensor. Canon 5D Mk3 or Nikon D810/D750 or D7200. The budget is not an issue, just confused as to what to get. I usually don't take prints of my photo's and am more of a enthusiast rather than a pro.

The main reasons I feel to choose a full-frame camera over a crop sensor camera would be if your photograhy style or subjects regularly require you to shoot primarily in low-light situations or if you will be printing large images.  You state you do not make prints, so you would have to simply decide if you primarily shoot in low-lighting.  If not, then you do not have to go with a full-frame camera, and the Nikon D7200 DSLR camera you listed should be enough for your needs.

Thanks, CharlesVery good article. I have another question re using a  prime 24 on DX or 35 on full frame as a walk around lens for being indoors or in the City. 

It’s a great way to go.  I’ve been one to commonly use that type of focal on my cameras for many years now.  When I shot film I had a 35mm f1.4 on my rangefinders, and with Digital I commonly try to end up with that type of focal on my APS-C/DX model cameras as it affords enough width that you can take nice city/street shots, but also not so wide that you are taking distorted people shots. Indoors it also has enough width that you are able to get a good sense of most rooms without looking like a wide/interior shot.   It’s a good/versatile focal when one considers it and shoots with it for a while.

I love to shoot indoor sports like Hockey ,dance and Taekwondo also like to do macro during the summer.I am using now a Nikon d7100 with a sigma 18-35mm 1.8 and a sigma 50-150mm 2.8 ll not the os model.I also have a Sigma 105mm 2.8 macro OS.

My macro pictures are fantastic but for Hockey and indoor sports I cant go over 1/400 sec because of the noise over 1600 iso.

I was thinking to buy the D810 for lower noise but with the pixel ***** so high on this full frame sensor it would end up with the same amount of noise as the d7100. 36 mp on a fx compared to 24mp on a DX .The d750 has that ****** flip out screen so no thanks so my only option would be the d610 if the d810 is to noisy .

Thanks Reg

The D610 will likely be noisier than you prefer at the higher ISO’s.  I note that you are displeased with the flip-out LCD screen on the D750, but in this case it does not affect the integrity or build of the camera, nor does it detract from the camera’s professional capability.  The D750 would be my recommendation if not for your objection to the vari-angle LCD screen.  It is a great camera by all accounts, and performs very well at higher ISO’s. It has a top ISO of 51,200 vs. 25,600 in the D610, plus the D750 has a more modern processor to help with issues such as noise.  Many wedding photographers and sports photographers are using this camera with great success currently.  I would encourage you to maybe consider renting one for a weekend trial to give it a chance. 

I’m also not sure clear on which type of file you are shooting on the D7100 that you are not happy with the results of, are they RAW or Jpeg?  If RAW, are you processing them?  That can make a difference in sharpness and noise and image quality in general, and you may find you can shoot it at higher ISO's than you currently are.